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Jamie Gallagher – Eighth Grade United States History Teacher at Carroll School in Lincoln, MA

December 3, 2013

DQ: Why is it important for middle school students to study history?

JG: I think that content of history allows kids, especially at Carroll, to practice their language arts skills.  They have to work on decoding for a purpose.  Not decoding for decoding.  They are going to have to get this information in, and so it just gives them another opportunity to practice reading and writing.  I also think it’s important because for many of our kids that want to go on to competitive high schools, however you want to term ‘competitive’, they are going to need to have a history background.  They are going to need knowledge of American History, of the Constitution, of Western Civilization, and they need to be able to write a paragraph, to cite a source, to incorporate a quote.

DQ: So what is more important in middle school, the content or the skills?

JG: Ahh skills.

DQ: Why?

JG: Because that is going to allow them to get the content later.  If they only have the content, I think they are limited because they won’t be able to pick it up in the future.

DQ: What makes you a good teacher?  What are your superpowers?

JG: I don’t know what my superpower is. I think one of the things that I really try to talk with the kids and not at the kids.  I think I get a lot of milage because instead of being talked at they are being talked with.

DQ:  Feel free to brag.  Having taught with you for three years, I would say your greatest strength is your ability to make personal connections with the students.

JG: (Laughing) I change my answer to that.

DQ: If I were to ask one of your students to describe you, what would they say?

JG:   I think they would feel that I care for them.  I try to really talk about the purpose for why we are doing something.  As a former high school history teacher, I tell them that, ‘these are skills you are going to need,’ or this is what you are going to want to have. So I think that my kids understand that I’m here to help them.  We are doing this because it’s going to help you not because it’s on the worksheet or because it’s what we’re supposed to do next.

DQ: Name the top three skills you want your students learn and why are they important?

JG: (pauses) I don’t know.  I don’t know what they would be.  I think one would be for them to understand that where attention goes, energy flows.  That if they can give something attention it will get easier.  It will flow downhill if they can just get started and just get into the new material and get interested.  And then, providing supports for their arguments, I guess, if I could add one more. ‘Why did you feel that way? What’s your support?’  And for them to be able to say, ‘Well, the Compromise of 1850 banned the slave trade in Washington DC so that would be support for….’

DQ: That’s cool.  What is your opinion of project based learning?  Describe the best project you’ve done.

JG: I don’t have a high opinion of project-based learning.  I think in large part its because that’s not how I went to school or how I learned.  With that being said, my kids and I love doing Fakebook pages on Civil War generals and politicians.  And we will enjoy making Fakebook pages… (Student comes in with a question about class)

DQ: So to continue, what are Fakebook pages?

JG: There is a website to called Fakebook and you make a fake Facebook profile page for historical figures.  You type their name in and Abraham Lincoln’s picture pops up.  Then you can make friends.  They can become friends with Mary Todd Lincoln or George B. McClellan.  Then you have a spot to make their bio like their Facebook info page of where they went to college, where they were born, their religion.  Then you have the ability to create wall posts.  This is really where the excitement comes from. On this date, I did this.  Then have other historical figures write on their wall.  We had a student this year who wanted to do Henry Hamlin, Lincoln’s first vice president. So he had the interaction between him and Lincoln during reelection where Lincoln finally had to write on his wall saying. ‘No.  I’m all set.  I’m going in another direction.’ And Hamlin saying, ‘Why? Why? What did I do?’  So, I don’t know if Fakebook counts as project-based learning or however you want to define it, but I like that.  We will do that again with the Robber Barons.  They will each get a robber baron.

DQ: That’s sounds awesome.  I can’t wait to check it out.

JG: They had an update over the summer, so it’s a little glitchy and some kids were losing their work.  But then we made the transition to putting it all on Microsoft Word.  Just give me a list of friends. Give me your wall posts. Are the dates right? Give me your biographical information.  It doesn’t have to be on that super snazzy website, although it does look cool.

DQ: That sounds fantastic.  I can’t wait to check it out. So, when you are assigning work, what’s your favorite homework assignment to help kids learn and review the material?

JG: Again, I apologize.  I don’t have a perfect answer for that because here (at Carroll) we are limited to twenty minutes of homework a night, so most of my homeworks, unfortunately, are read two or three pages of the textbook, and then answer some comprehension questions that the online textbook provides.  So, eighty to ninety percent of our homeworks are that.  (pauses) I think anytime I can get my kids to draw.  Draw a cartoon of one of the amendments.  You pick the amendment and you draw it or draw the Anaconda Plan and make it visual.  Draw trench warfare and make it visual.  I guess that would be one of my favorites.  But I’m not doing a lot of that only because of the fact of having only twenty minutes a night.

DQ: What types of technology, like Fakebook, do you currently use in your classroom?  As a side note, what new types of technology do you think you will be using when you retire?

JG: (laughing) Every kid has a laptop.  I use the website Edmodo for really everything so the kids turn their homework in on Edmodo.  I correct in Edmodo. I can leave feedback for students on their individual assignments that only they can see.  We post information into the classpage.  If a kid has a question about a homework assignment, he can post that question on the class page and another student might answer the question before I do.  I have the Edmodo app on my iPhone, so I get a text if a student sends me a direct message. So, I will have a kid with a question, and I can answer it as long as I am near my phone with my own kids at home,  So yes, I keep all the grades in Edmodo. (pauses) So we use an etextbook so it reads to them.  They can get definitions of words right there.  Kids have just learned about the Main Ideas button so they can just focus on the relevant information.  Many of them made the connection that many of the quiz questions come from the main ideas, so they put extra emphasis on that when they are reading.  A lot of web-based stuff, so Youtube and Wikipedia.  You know, kids do Prezis or PowerPoints.  What kids will be using the future for education, I don’t know.  I haven’t put much time into thinking about that. Mmm, I do think it’s probably going to be more voiced-based… oral and visual and less text I bet.

DQ: So, what is your approach to discipline?

JG: That’s a good question.  Being big (laughs).  Really I tend to start with discipline in two ways.  I ask my students, ‘What do you want to get out of this?’  Luckily, most of my kids are very motivated by grades.  They are motivated to do well because they know this is their last year at Carroll. So, I think the kids that I get are motivated to do well. So, if I have a problem or situation, often, I say, ‘Are you taking care of business?  Are you doing what you need to do so you can succeed at the next level because that’s why I’m here.’  I don’t really think a lot about discipline.  I don’t really worry about it.  A lot of time with the kids, I keep harping, ‘I’m going to treat you like adults for as long as I can.  If you can sustain that and give that back, we are able to keep moving.’  I was just talking with another teacher who was having trouble with one class, and I was saying, ‘One thing I had said before was at the time I’d had fifteen different classes at Carroll and had been able to do everything the same for every class, but it wasn’t working for this one class.  So, I was going to have to teach that one class differently.  I was going to have to start to put in a seating chart.  I was going to have to do different things, and if they wanted that then they could continue to act that way.  That was kind of the shifting point for that class where they were able to be accountable for their actions, and they changed it around.  So yes, I don’t have an approach.  I don’t know….  I don’t have three strikes and you’re out….

DQ: I would say points to the students’ level of engagement.

JG:  I agree and I think that’s a big part of it.  I think that with history, with the E textbook it’s less intimidating than reading The Outsiders.  It’s less intimidating than looking at muscles, tissues, and blood vessels in a body.  I get lucky.

DQ: So, who is your favorite teacher and what made them special?

JG: (pauses) Yea, I don’t know.  I had a professor I in college.  Actually, there was two professors that I really remember in college, but I really remember one was a Cuban dissident.  He went to college with the Bacardi and Castro brothers. (laughs) His classes in Latin America history were great, awesome.  And so I really liked him.  And my other favorite teacher was a Chinese expat who came to America and went to Johns Hopkins and in seven years learned how to speak English and got all three degrees. (laughs) But his Chinese History classes were awesome.  So, I guess, in essence, they had firsthand experience.  So, I guess that’s the two I remember the most.  I wish I was picking a junior high or high school history teacher, but those are the two guys I remember.

DQ: If you could teach me one thing to make me a better teacher, something that’s in your bag of tricks, what would it be?

JG: (pauses) I don’t know.  But I do know that what, I think, helps me a ton is that I don’t worry about content because I’ve had it.  Teaching eighth grade at Carroll now for five years, teaching U.S. History and A.P. U.S. History at Middlesex, and U.S. History at Holderness and all the outside reading.  I don’t question.  I don’t have to worry about the content or acquiring new information. I mean, I am.  I’m still reading books, but I feel very, very comfortable if a kid asks a question, or if we go in a different direction that I can answer it.  However, if you threw me into a European History class, I wouldn’t feel as comfortable as I feel now.  If I had to teach a unit on Mesopotamia or Sumeria, I would be well out of my comfort zone with my content.  But I feel very comfortable teaching U.S. History.  And I think that would be the biggest thing.  Once you get your teaching load, hopefully its in one discipline, and you can just bang it out.

DQ: That’s it.  Thanks a lot.

JG: You’re welcome.

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